About Barbara Kass

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Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

The phrase “disordered affections” captured my attention while I was reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. St. Ignatius of Loyola first described disordered affections in his Spiritual Exercises as whatever keeps us from being free. It is an “affection” because we find it appealing. We are drawn to it. It satisfies a hunger – a need within us, and, after a while, it becomes an “attachment.” We think we cannot live without it. Thus, it is “disordered” because it is not “life giving.”

As I chased down its meaning, I uncovered how I use disordered affections in my life to distract myself from my path and growing closer to God. In pastoral counseling, it is easy to identify the disordered affections and attachments that are obviously not “life giving” and cause harm: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what about those disordered affections that are seemingly harmless like watching television, the Internet, reading, exercise, work, and, um, chocolate?

So, I did a little research and found a definition on This Ignatian Life :

 “Disordered attachments are those things (objects, experiences, activities, even other people) who become the focus of our desires and, consequently our time on this earth, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.”

Hmmm. This might mean that my job qualifies as a disordered affection . . . but we’ll deal with that later. Here are some questions This Ignatian Life recommends we ask to identify disordered affections:

  • Does the object of your affection distract you from your focus to be closer to God? (Only after lunch and only when it involves chocolate.)
  • Is more of your time spent attending to these affections rather than the work you need to be doing? (No, I can eat chocolate and answer e-mail at the same time.)
  • Do you have a fear of feeling empty if you do not attend to your affections? (Darn it . . . yes! Only chocolate will fill that emptiness!)
  • Is your time spent trying to accumulate more time with or material objects surrounding your affections? (Hmm. I purchased the party-size bag of M&M’s® and carry it with me. At first, I thought I would just carry a serving size but what if it was not enough and I want more? It doesn’t make sense to BUY more when I already have $11.99 worth at home.)

Interestingly, St. Ignatius offers a way to overcome disordered attachments that might sound a little familiar to pastoral counselors:

  • Begin by naming the disorder. (Chocoholism.)
  • Admit that the disorder impacts your life and relationships. (Sigh . . . see the 3 out of 4 “yes” answers above.)
  • Remember your desire to move closer to God and your commitment to serve others. (St. Ignatius also reminded me that my desire is also God’s desire to be closer to me, and I never share my M&M’s® with anyone.)
  • Seek the grace to be strong and committed to your path. Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear. (I was inspired to purchase an M&M® dispenser and place it on the desk in my office. Now, people trickle in for a handful of candy and stay and chat for a minute or two.)

Ignatian spirituality calls for us to find God in all things. Even within a disordered affection, if I seek to find God and His grace, I will find my freedom and perhaps a few other souls along the way.

When Feeling Bad is Good

When feeling bad is good for you

Barbara Kass

Just as our bodies signal us to tend to our physical well-being, so our emotions act like messengers to mind our emotional well-being. When we are rested and energized, we can take on life’s challenges with ease. Feeling tired indicates we need to retreat and relax. Likewise, feelings of joy, contentment, and love say “everything is fine” while feeling angry, anxious, or depressed make us uncomfortable and think “something is wrong.”

The happiness road beckons all of us yet trying to follow that path by avoiding painful emotions is a gateway to living a less-than-authentic life. Meeting difficult emotions face-to-face is the foundation of resilience and can help guide our lives. When struck by a spark of rage or held immobile by despair or fear, we must ask ourselves: What purpose does this emotion serve for me? What am I trying to tell myself? How can this emotion best guide my decisions and actions in the next moments?

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, author James Martin points out that any emotion can overwhelm us. We might feel a joy out of proportion to a particular event or moved to tears for something insignificant and wonder: What is wrong with me? In those distinct moments, we don’t quite feel right. There is a certain emptiness, a longing, a desire to connect with a larger understanding that seems just outside of our reach. Martin calls those moments invitations from God asking us to communicate with the greater power of our origination. And if we connect with the power that gave us this life – the power that wants us to have a good life – we know we are getting the best counseling available.

I frequent a blog, Domini Canes, where a recent post reminded me that we look to God for answers through prayer, but prayer is not a man-made action. Rather, prayer is a gift, a door eternally open to connection with God. We are both the seeker and the sought.

Our lives shout at us through our feelings and in the silent circumstances of our deeds. Your emotions will tell you everything you need to know about your journey. As you sift through the results of your decisions and actions, look at how your trials made meaning in your life and know the presence of God within you.

Shamanic Revelations

When you hear the word “shaman,” what image pops up in your mind:

  • A short skinny guy wearing a grass skirt dancing dangerously close to a fire?
  • The dark hidden face of an ancient medicine man or woman chanting softly to the spirits?
  • Jesus? (Gasp! Yes, Jesus was a shaman . . . probably the best ever.)

In fact, the Society of Jesus and shamanism have common ways of being in the world. Before you stone me as a heathen, read on.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary has a woefully antiquated, inadequate, and unenlightened definition of a shaman: “a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.”

Yikes. Uses magic? Nope. According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies:

“In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman’s purpose is to help the patient get well.” (Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone).

Jesuits come from all walks of life. Shamans can be anyone and rarely use a title such as priest or priestess. I personally know of one shaman traipsing the halls and classrooms of Loyola University with the title “student.”

Like shamanism, Ignatian spirituality is incarnational – God is not “out there” somewhere; God is right here in ALL things: people, events, objects, elements, animals, insects, and the stars. Jesuits are “contemplative in action” and take their meditative and reflective way of being into the world to guide their actions. Shamans converse with the spirits of plants, animals, and divine beings and apply that guidance in life and administering to the sick.

A shaman does not “cure” anybody but instead provides the energy and knowledge that support healing just as a Jesuit might bring the presence of God through prayer to help people heal. Divining the hidden in shamanism is no more than providing something for a person to reflect on and respond to which is similar to pastoral counseling.

Although Jesus could control events, his primary interest was letting life unfold in accordance with God’s love, even when this resulted in his crucifixion. Almost 2,000 years later, today’s shaman will follow his lead and consult him as a spiritual teacher when it comes to life’s events.

Just ask me.

“Do we hafta pray?” Finding the divine spark.

“Do we hafta pray?”

 “I’ve never found religion all that useful.”

“What’s that mean . . .  pastoral counseling?”

“I don’t need God. God won’t pay my rent!”

These are composite statements and attitudes of some clients who have come to me for counseling. Here are my witty responses:

“Would you like to pray?”

 “What do you find useful?”

“What does it mean to you?”

“Maybe if you asked nice He would.”

Okay. I really didn’t use that last one.

My clinical internship is supported by an on-site pastoral care department. They promote my presence as being that of a pastoral counselor. Some people seek me out because they want a spiritual component to their counseling. Others come to me wanting counseling, but expressing reluctance or outright refusal to being “pastoralized” (<–not a real word).

Life in my little counseling room is easy when clients intentionally walk with God or any belief in spirituality or a higher power. At Loyola, I’ve learned to meet my clients where they are at and talk the common theme of spirituality regardless of religion. With non-God/non-spiritual clients, my pastoral presence struggles a bit. Wanting to respect their boundaries, God, Jesus, spirit, and prayer become secrets that I hide in my mental closet.

Meeting the non-spiritual client where he or she is at is challenging because I cannot be a non-spiritual counselor. Like breathing, my spirituality is both a voluntary and involuntary response. Even if I choose not to speak of it in session, my spiritual presence is still very active, humming along in the background, influencing my way of being, and scanning the surface for a chance to connect with the client.

Sometimes, my Type A pastoral presence wants to bop non-spiritual clients on the head and say: “How can you NOT realize and attend to your spirit???!!!” My more reasonable, compromising pastoral presence has come to rely on the concept of Namaste: recognizing the “Divine spark” that lives in all of us.

Silently present, Namaste acknowledges the divine within non-God/non-spiritual clients. It waits with eternal patience at the closed door where their spirituality lives. 

Namaste knows there is always somebody home.

Searching for signs: This WAY

Barbara Kass

Like Moses, I wandered the desert for 40 years. Unlike Moses, there was no hike up Mount Sinai and certainly no burning bush. My journey to Loyola began with a 2,000 mile trek across the United States from the bare brown deserts of West Texas to the lush green overgrowth of Maryland. I’ve yet to find a burning bush, but I have found a smoldering fire of desire buried beneath the soil of my soul.

Besides the usual growing-up stuff, I had spent those 40 years in the fields of law, medicine, and health. Fifteen years ago, newly adorned with my Master of Public Health degree, I found a spot within our federal government to practice all that I learned. Public health provides survival essentials to humans such as clean water and vaccines. Public health workers are devoted to promoting environmental, physical, behavioral, and occupational health. I know all about epidemiology, biostatistics, health economics, and public policy. What I could not find in public health, though, is a way to measure and foster the wellness of souls.

Our government has several agencies that promote mental and emotional health, but the research and promotional efforts of these agencies dance around the topics of spirituality, God, soul, and religion. Federal and state funds are freely used by independent researchers to explore these topics and their message is often translated privately into the public sector.

But there is no application of spirituality within the framework of public health.

The question came to me within a few years of my career: how can I bring the divine presence into my public health work? In response, six years ago, someone handed me a Loyola pastoral counseling brochure. I researched Loyola and its competitors extensively. Back in 2006, Loyola had little competition for souls. (Wanna-be’s are springing up everywhere but the Jesuits have the best original package.)

It wasn’t exactly a burning bush, but I had asked a question and received an answer. It was the only answer. I viewed it as giant neon sign flashing the divine message: GO THIS WAY!

“This Way” is the path of a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling. It will end in a year’s time. I won’t have any stone tablets etched with smoking commandments, but I will have a piece of paper etched with this immortal word: graduate.